Sunday, January 02, 2005

Customer Service Is Communication

"You cannot not communicate" is one of the mantras of professional communicators. Even the attempt to avoid communicating communicates something. That's why we say customer service (or lack thereof) is communication.

Take a couple of experiences I've had in the last couple of days.

For context: Our 19-month-old chronically ill baby is back in the hospital. She developed a urinary tract infection and a lung infection while her grandmother and great aunt were visiting from Florida, which puts extra logistical pressure on us.

Some friends gave us some gift cards to a grocery store to help us out during this time. We usually use another grocery store, even though it costs a bit more, because we get better service there. But a gift card is a gift card, and food is food. So Friday I went grocery shopping to the store whose gift cards I had. The store shall remain nameless.

Well, OK, since you asked, the store was Bi-Lo in Maryville, Tennessee.

It's a nice, clean store with everything properly arranged and all the displays in place. I found everything I needed and proceeded to a checkout manned by a tall, clean-cut young man.

He looked great, in fact, except that he appeared never to have smiled in his life. No greeting. Eyes focused on the cash register. He just pulled my cart up and started running items across the scanner, asking the requisite "Do you have a Bi-Lo card?" in the same tone you might use talking to a flat tire.

"I do," I said, "but I don't have it with me." I keep those things in my Dayrunner, which I had left at the hospital.

Still not looking at me, he said, "What's your phone number?"

I gave it to him, and he punched it into the computer. "Dudn't work," he said.

That was it.

After a pause, I said, "Aaaall righty then."

He finished ringing up the purchase, I paid with the gift card, and we left the store.

I am grateful for the gift cards, and since we have one more we will shop there again, which means the store will get one more chance. But unless the experience drastically changes, I will never shop in there again.

As Jeffrey Gitomer says in
Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless: How to Make Customers Love you, Keep Them Coming Back, and Tell Everyone They Know, I'm not ticked off at the cashier. I'm ticked off at whoever trained the cashier. His body language certainly communicated a lack of caring about me or anyone else around him. We can (and probably will) spend another whole article on what could possibly have led an entire generation to such communication problems. (That's not just old fogey talk. I'm old enough to have seen at least a couple of earlier generations come through those entry level jobs and college classes, and I've never seen this before.) But today we're focusing elsewhere.

The whole experience communicates something to me from the company itself. It tells me they emphasize on having things right, but they don't spend the time and money they need to on people. It tells me they are willing to keep people around who treat the customers badly--probably part of a vicious cycle that goes something like this:

  • Our personnel costs are too high because we have to replace them too often.
  • We can only pay minimum wage because our personnel costs are too high.
  • We attract lower-quality employees because we only pay minimum wage.
  • We have to replace them too often because we attract lower-quality employees.

It tells me that they, like most companies, spend most of their marketing dollars to get new customers or take customers from other companies, while spending very little money and effort to keep the customers they already have.

All those ads and bonus cards and gift cards, etc., are designed to get me into the store. It does no good unless my experience makes me want to come back.

They are so good at forecasting market trends and tracking purchases (that's why they give you the bonus cards to begin with). How can they be so stupid when it comes to dealing with people? I'll bet they cut what little training they offer as soon as the economy tightens--which communicates that they view business as a mechanical process rather than one built on relationships. (This is an assumption, based on what I've seen among lots of companies. Although it's an assumption, it's still the message I get.)

Here's another example.

Because we're on the run all the time, we eat a lot of fast food. We like a lot of fast food better than McDonald's, but we eat at McDonald's more often because they are likely to get the order right and to have people at the drive-through who act like they care. (Your mileage may vary; this is what happens in our area.) We have gotten on a first-name basis with two or three of the folks at McDonald's. On those relatively rare occasions when the order hasn't been right, they have cheerfully and quickly fixed it.

Two days ago, I went through Burger King's drive-through and ordered a sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich®. The ticket stapled to the bag said sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich®. I paid for a sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich®. Because I was headed to the hospital, I glanced in the bag and hit the road.

A half-mile away I opened the wrapper, and I had a cold ham and cheese Croissan'wich®. No egg. Wrong meat. No heat. I ate it anyway, because I was hungry, and because I didn't have time to go back. But next time, chances are I'll go to McDonald's.

If it was the first time, I'd try that Burger King again. But it seems to happen about half the time--there's something wrong with it. Plus, it's a new face every time I go through the drive-through, and this particular face barely took the time to interrupt her conversation with another employee to mechanically wish me a nice day. So when I'm pressed for time, I'll just skip them.

Fast food managers say they can't afford to pay too much, and they can't afford training, because turnover is too high. But how many dollars do they lose to stuff like this?

Two years ago while my wife was pregnant with Hannah she had car trouble on Pellissippi Parkway (a major road in Knoxville, Tennessee) and pulled off at the Burger King on Lovell Road. We've stopped there dozens of times because of its convenience. She asked to use the phone, and the shift manager told her policy prevented him from letting her. He didn't offer to call for her, didn't offer her his cell phone, didn't try any other way to help her solve the problem. Just spouted policy--this from the shift manager of a restaurant where we had done hundreds of dollars in business.

My pregnant wife crossed the road to an automotive repair place where we have never done business, and they let her use the phone. If we lived anywhere in the area, we'd be getting our cars fixed there now, and we have recommended the place to several other people. I'm sure we've sent thousands of dollars in business their way. (Note: if any of our friends had told us the repair service had been bad, we'd have stopped recommending. But they were always pleased with the service to their cars as well as the way they were treated.)

We have not set foot in that particular Burger King in two years. How many dollars did that cost Burger King--especially when you consider how many other people I've told about it?

The loss of revenue is not the shift manager's fault. It's the fault of whoever trained him, and the fault of whoever set the assumptions behind the training, i.e., "policy matters more than principle or people."

You better believe it, folks: customer service communicates. And by the way, calling a company division "Customer Service" doesn't make it service, any more than it does when the IRS includes "service" in its name. Customer service is an attitude, exemplified by management and propagated through real training. Even if you provide training, it won't reach the customers unless the managers actually encourage it beyond lip service, and empower principle over policy. Failure to do so communicates far more to me than any fancy ads.

This isn't just griping about poor service. We all have hundreds of bad service stories. Rather, I'm making a point: service communicates, good or bad. Before spending thousands of dollars promoting your business to new customers, think about the message you're sending to your existing customers. This applies just as much to those off us who work for someone else as it does to business owners. We still have customers.

Take a look at Jeffrey Gitomer's book. It's worth the time, the investment, and the discomfort it will bring you.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Values underlie effective communication

This article may strike readers of Squiggles as not fitting our theme, so let me remind you up front: our mission is the help people remember who they really are and effectively express that knowing. While we usually focus on effective expression in these pages, ignoring the first part would be a serious mistake. Austrian journalist Karl Kraus is reputed to have given this definition: "Journalist: a person without any ideas but with an ability to express them."

The term "values" gets tossed around a lot in an election year, with the intent of implying that the opponent has none. Most people mean "my values" when they talk about values. Beneath the mumbo jumbo, "what are your values?" means the same as "what do you think is most important?" In other words, asking "what are your values" and "what do you value" are the same.

We make and advocate choices based not just on fact, but on which of those facts we consider most important, as we've said elsewhere in Squiggles. To make such a choice doesn't mean we consider other facts unimportant. We just consider them of lesser importance.

This is true even when we don't realize it. An article in Wired made that point to me tellingly, and it doesn't even deal with communication or choice-making per se. Nevertheless, an understanding of "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" would help assuage much of the angst we all face in making our daily choices and communicating about them. It's worth your time to read the whole article. Go ahead, we'll wait.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Update on newsreader software

We're not suddenly going to become a tech newsletter, but I thought this recommendation might still be worthwhile. I mentioned in an earlier post that I use Mozilla Thunderbird for managing my own RSS subscriptions. I still think it's a good program, but I also think I've found a better one. SharpReader is freeware that works nicely, quickly and easily, and gives you more control over your subscriptions. (Though it's freeware, you can donate, if you choose, to support their work.) It has only two downsides that I've found so far:

  1. It requires that you have .NET Framework, version 1.1, installed already. You probably do; if you don't, you can get it by going to WindowsUpdate, which you should do regularly anyway.
  2. If I remember correctly, it makes itself your default browser (I mentioned that one earlier too). If so, it's not a big problem. If you still use Intenet Explorer (which has dropped in usage against Firefox), click on Tools > Internet Options > Programs and make sure the box is checked for "Internet Explorer should check to see if it is the default browser." (If it's already checked, which is the default, then IE will automatically check when you first open IE. Just tell it "yes" and forget the rest of the instructions.) There are similar ways of having Firefox and Mozilla check (if you use either of those, I'll bet you already know how to make it your default).
  3. OK, another one. There's not much by way of help files, so you have to be able to figure things out pretty well on your own. The good news in this regard is that the program is fairly intuitive and self-explanatory, so it's not too hard to figure out.
Give SharpReader a try if you are just now setting up RSS feeds--I think you'll like it, and it's certainly priced right.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Squiggles available through XML newsfeed

Dear Readers:

You will be interested in this if you:

  • Get Squiggles via e-mail, or
  • Read Squiggles on the Web site.
Hmmm. Come to think of it, that's everybody.

The "next big thing" for people who get a lot of electronic newsletters or who go back to the same Web sites a lot to check for updates is "newsfeeds." You'll sometimes see them referred to as "RSS feeds." RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication, and is one of the two standards for such newsfeeds. Think about the format battle between VHS and Betamax a few years back. There is such a market struggle going on now between RSS (the older standard) and Atom (the newer, open-sourced but less common standard).

Without getting too technical, we have chosen a publishing solution that allows you to receive a newsfeed you can read regardless of which standard your reader uses.

From the user's standpoint, here's how it works. You start your newsreader program, which goes out and checks for updates on all your subscriptions. If there are updates, the program grabs them and puts them on your computer for you to read when you have a chance.

So what?

Here are the advantages over either e-mail or checking Web sites:
  1. When you subscribe to a given feed, it's just a matter of telling the software to go get feeds from a certain site. You do not have to give out any information about yourself, such as an e-mail address. That means that you do not expose yourself to the possibility of more spam at all.
  2. By the same token, you don't have to worry that your overzealous spam filter will accidentally put a message from your newsletter into the trash just because it has a word or two that could kick in the filter--not dirty words, but [gasp] words that have a capitalist flavor to them. Spammers use a lot of such words. Unfortunately, sometimes so do publishers of newsletters that you actually want to receive. Since you have subscribed to it, you know you want to get it, but the filters sometimes prevent you from doing so.
  3. Unsubscribing is as easy as subscribing. If you don't want to get the newsletter any more, you simply delete the entry from your subscription list.
  4. Reading it on the Web site is equally anonymous and easy, of course, but then you have to remember to check it. If updating your newsreader is part of your daily routine, it will check all of your subscriptions all at once.
  5. If you have several favorite Web sites, you can spend a lot of time surfing to check them out. The newsreader saves time because it checks, as we said, all at once.
  6. You can also spend a lot of time surfing and come up with nothing. I have several Web sites I check regularly; sometimes there is a lot of new material, and sometimes there is nothing. The newsreader doesn't waste your time checking when there are no updates--it knows whether there are updates or not.
As is often the case with "new" technologies, newsfeeds have actually been around for quite awhile, but they seem to have reached a critical mass lately. A lot of sites and blogs are suddenly using them. As much as we hope you benefit from Squiggles, it frankly would not be worth your time to switch to a newsfeed if we were the only newsletter to which you subscribe. But if you have three or more (and they all have some kind of newsfeed--not all sites have enabled this ability), it becomes worthwhile.

Already there are dozens of newsreaders. Some are free, some are ad-supported, and some cost money. Some have certain unexpected problems (one I read about (the name of which escapes me right now) has a reputation for being a good newsreader, BUT it will try to replace Internet Explorer with itself as your browser when you install it). Some can act as browsers as well as newsreaders, and some can act as e-mail clients as well as newsreaders. Research the possibilities and decide what meets your needs (you can easily check them out by Googling "XML newsreader").

Don't take it particularly as a recommendation, because this is what meets my needs, but I have had good luck with Mozilla Thunderbird. While it is primarily an e-mail client (and a very good one, although for many reasons I continue to use Microsoft Outlook for e-mail), the latest release includes an option for handling newsfeeds, and that's all I use it for.

To add our feed to your subscription list, follow the instructions for your particular reader. As part of that, the software will ask you for the URL of the feed. You can always get it by clicking on the XML logo in the description block of this blog (at the top). (To make it easy if you're subscribing while reading this post, you can simply click here for the URL.) Just put that URL in the proper place, and it's done.

I hope this not only helps you get Squiggles more efficiently, but also helps you manage some of your other subscriptions as well.

Now, go out and commit an act of communication!

Rising from slumber

Dear Readers:

This is the second posting in one day, after months of not being able to post at all! Lest you worry that you will suddenly be inundated with posts from me, let me assure you that will not be the case. I'll post one more today to tell you about a way to subscribe to Squiggles using a newsreader instead of e-mail, and that will be all for today (those of you who read Squiggles on the Web site will also be interested in that option).

For now, I just want to tell you that:

  • Squiggles is publishing again, and
  • Squiggles has been redesigned.
The medical challenges with my daughter continue, so we're still not promoting speaking engagements, etc. But we can continue addressing my mission in life: helping people to remember who they really are and to effectively express that knowing. The redesign has simplified the appearance and the interface to make it as easy as possible for people to take part in this ongoing conversation about effective communication.

The appearance is cleaner all by itself, and that's worthwhile. We also have three innovations that take advantage of Internet publishing to make the newsletter a more effective experience.
  1. Permalinks, a part of the design when we first moved Squiggles to a blog format, are still part of the design. If you click on the time stamp at the bottom of an article, you go to a new page that is just that article. The URL for that page can be used for easy reference, whether you are writing a traditional (can we say that about a medium this young?) Web page or another blog.
  2. New to this design for us is a comment system. If you would like to leave a comment about an article, click on the "# Comments" link (where # is replaced by however many comments there are already) at the bottom of the article. You can read comments left by others and leave your own. This makes Web publishing more of a conversation.
  3. Mail links make it easy to share an article with others of like mind through e-mail. Just click on the envelope icon to send the permalink for an article through e-mail to whomever you wish.
We still aim to share short items of interest and occasional longer articles. In any case, we want to make sure Squiggles is worth your time. The next article, then, will get a little more technical about taking advantage of our newsfeed if you'd rather to that than either get Squiggles in e-mail or check the Web page for updates.

Thanks! We're glad to be back, and we hope you're glad too.

The essence of communication

I don't usually mix religion/spirituality in with our ongoing conversation about effective communication. But there is an article on Beliefnet that gets at the heart of communication problems that afflict our country as a whole right now.

The article is not about religion per se, but about understanding people who are different. Religion and morality came up a lot in the last election, but much of what went on with that was less about religion and more about pure communication. Steven Waldman's points can just as easily apply in principle to many other groups on opposite sides of any given fence. I think it will worth your time to examine. You get a sense of this from the title and subtitle of the article: "Perverted, God-Hating Frenchies vs. Inbred, Sex-Obsessed Yokels: Why Can't Liberals and Conservatives Get Along? Because They Fundamentally Misunderstand Each Other." Look at it as someone interested in effective communication, not as someone who might happen to fit one of the categories.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Publication suspended

I sent the following email to our subscriber list a few days ago. I'm posting it on the Blog also so that folks who come across this site will know what is going on. The subscription software remains available for people who want to know if and when we start publishing again. Copy follows:

Dear Subscribers:

Some of you have noticed that Squiggles has not published since February. I won't go into a lot of detail; suffice it to say that Hannah (who is now nearly 14 months old) has enough medical issues to keep us busy pretty much all the time we're not working at our "day" jobs. Many of you know I teach college communication classes. That is not only my first professional love and obligation, it is also what I now must do in order to keep the insurance that, in effect, keeps Hannah alive.

Therefore, reluctantly, I am making official the publication suspension that has been de facto since February.

The Web site will stay up, and the blog will remain in place. There's a lot of good material there, and I want people to still be able to access it. I hope some day to start publishing regularly again, and since the blog will remain in place, I will put up brief comments irregularly. If you are still getting monthly password reminders from the subscriber software and find them annoying, but would still like to know when Squiggles starts publishing again, you can log into your options page and simply turn off the password reminder.

I hope Squiggles has helped you to be a more effective communicator. I know I have enjoyed sharing this virtual space with you. And I hope we can share it again. If nothing else, keep the Web site bookmarked so you can get updates.


Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Gender and communication
by Donnell King

There is a biological basis for differences in communication patterns in men and women.

For instance, the corpus colossum, the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, is generally about 30 percent larger in women than in men. That doesn't mean either gender is smarter; it means that women are better able to multitask, switching back and forth between the detail-oriented thinking and the holistic, pattern-oriented thinking that the two sides generally control. (Yes, this is an oversimplication, but it accounts for at least some of the differences, though not all.)

Testosterone has been shown to affect attention. It's not that men don't pay attention; rather, they focus on one item at a time, like search light, whereas women tend toward a less-focused, more encompassing attention, like a light bulb that lights a whole room. Whether this is driven by biology or socialization is an open question. It is true, however, that the traditional roles reinforce and/or are driven by these differences. The challenge of managing a house and several kids at once requires more comprehensive attention; the challenge of killing something and bringing it home to eat requires the more focused attention and the ability to block out distractions. You'll see your housecat do the same thing when it's stalking something. Predators focus.

Though not politically correct, and certainly subject to conscious management (they are, after all, tendencies rather than requirements), these differences come into practical play in our everyday conversations.

Deborah Tannen how found several significant differences between the way women communicate and the way men communicate (as far as I know, she hasn't tried to determine if it's biologically or sociologically based--just noted the differences). For instance, women are better at accurately determining someone's emotional state based on nonverbal communication, a skill that demands integration, pattern-recognition, and multitasking. Men are better at problem-solving, a skill that demands focus, blocking out of extraneous information, and following distinct steps.

Bottom line: he's not preferring the football game to her. But if he's watching the football game while she's trying to talk to him, he will literally not hear what she's saying. By the same token, if she manages to get his attention he will hear what she is saying, but he will have no clue what happened on the TV while he was talking to her.

Such linear communication also doesn't lend itself to frequent interruptions. In other words, interruptions can drastically affect men without bothering holistically focused women as much. Men are often criticized for having one-track minds. They can, in fact, switch tracks, but it takes the kind of effort it takes to have a train switch tracks. Constant interruptions can have the effect and frustration on men of constant derailment. This, in itself, is probably very frustrating to women who don't need a track and can zoom all over the landscape at will.

It is quite possible to recognize these differences, and compensate for them. For instance, women tend to communicate primarily to share feelings and understandings, whereas men communicate primarily to solve problems. If I'm talking to another man about a problem at work, he will just assume I'm seeking help solving the problem, and he will likely be right--otherwise, I wouldn't have said anything. If I try to solve my female colleague's problem in the same way, though, I may be told that I'm not "listening," because I'm trying to solve the problem rather than simply "hear" her.

I have been learning (and it is a learning that will go on for a lifetime; we can compensate for biology, but we can't change it) to ask my wife when she wants me to help her solve a problem, and when she wants me to just listen. And I have also been learning to let her know what I'm seeking as well, since we've both been learning that it can be useful to communicate in the other mode than what our biology might predispose us to. But it takes conscious effort. We have also been learning that violating the expectation that our respective gender lead us to regarding communication does NOT mean that the other person is inattentive, uncaring, or "not listening"--which is the most common complaint both men and women have about each other.

Again, these are tendencies, not necessities. Assuming that "all" men or "all" women communicate in a certain way would be going too far. Ignoring the tendencies would go too far in the other direction, however.

Now, go out and commit an act of communication!

Editor update

We're having some problems with our other blogs that could show up on this one. The software has a bug that the techies are trying to track down that can sometimes (not always--which makes it harder to track down) send out to the email list the most current post AND the next-to-most current post. If we find this happening with Squiggles, we will disconnect the email list from the blog. Subscribers will still get the most current post in email, but I'll have to send it by hand, which may mean it appears on the blog site up to 24 hours before you get it in email. We'll get this fixed soon, or I'll switch to a different software package.

You may see a site redesign soon as well.

For those following Hannah's progress, she is gaining weight now! She has adapted to her gastric feeding tube (put in place because she wasn't protecting her airway and was aspirating her food), and we are starting to get a handle on how all this affects our daily schedule). She still has physical challenges (at nearly 11 months, for instance, she still has trouble holding her head up and still can't sit up on her own), but she is making progress, and now weighs 15 pounds, 5 ounces.

Friday, February 27, 2004

For those who have an interest in "free speech" issues, here is an interesting article about a Court of Appeals case affecting the 1st Amendment that includes some interesting behind-the-scenes facts about government practice and advertising. I had no idea that these common advertising campaigns had, in fact, been forcibly funded by the government requiring farmers to pay for them!